The world of commercial security monitoring is investigated in this article, and the technology, systems and services used to deliver value for your monitoring dollar are explored.
A baffling array of names are given to facilities that provide security monitoring services, including central monitoring station (CMS), alarm monitoring center (AMC), alarm receiving center (ARC) and security monitoring station (SMS). This makes it difficult to evaluate what businesses, systems and services are related to commercial centers and what are for in-house stations at casinos and the like.
Furthermore, a large number of DVR manufacturers are churning out systems labeled "CMS," written to indicate central management software or specifically for in-house control rooms yet marketed generically. This makes CMS a very broad term. To keep things simple, this article looks specifically at businesses that monitor multiple commercial clients. As such, the term commercial control room (CCR) will be used.
CCRs most commonly offer back-to-base alarm monitoring; this is a service offered to businesses and residences with back-to-base reporting alarm panels. These businesses are more prevalent in countries like the United State, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. Many developing countries and countries with a high percentage of people and businesses residing in high-rise buildings often rely more on security guards or electronic access control.
CCRs offer remote alarm monitoring as an entry-level service, along with a host of value-added services like late-to-close monitoring. Typically, CCRs operate in a secured location. Depending on licensing, requirements of the country, they may have walls of a certain construction and an access-controlled airlock (all physical measures to guard against forced intrusion).
The CCR itself has a main operating area with operator terminals. Each operator has a workstation that is connected to the CCR's automation system, a software-driven database that handles all the incoming alarms and queues them for operators to deal with. Every CCR also has a communication room, housing automation servers and communication appliances; the most common appliance is the alarm receiver, which receives calls from all the remote alarm panels dialing in their messages. CCRs also handle system alarms from the panel, such as power failure or low-battery alerts.
On top of this physical infrastructure sits the "software." The CCR's standard operating procedures (SOPs) detail how operators should react to alerts through to how to dispatch guards. On the client side, the CCR records each client's unique action plan consisting of instructions (for example, call after one or more detector activation) and a call list (the name and mobile number of site management).
Another value-added service used primarily by businesses is late-to-close monitoring. This service is designed to alert the business manager when someone forgets to arm the alarm; the service actually creates more work for CCRs than intrusion detection and monitoring, so many now charge separately for this service or have turned to automated systems like text messaging or automated dialing systems to lower manual labor. Assessing how CCRs deal with late-to-close monitoring is a good criterion.
Services on Offer
* Alarm monitoring: Upon receipt of an alarm event, a CCR typically responds by phoning the client and/or dispatching a guard to investigate.
* Late-to-close monitoring: When a site is disarmed past normal business hours, the client is notified by phone or text messaging.
* System monitoring: Alerts are sent for things like power failure and detector tampering.
* Plant monitoring: This monitors non-security alerts like freezer temperature and boiler malfunction. (The alarm reporting and response mechanisms are the same; only the alarm description and response plan are different.)
* GPS monitoring/tracking: This allows for tracking of vehicles and/or people. The CCR is on hand to shut down stolen vehicles and liaise with police for recovery; also, the CCR may provide hosting services so the client can go online and check vehicle whereabouts.
* Video monitoring: The CCR visually verifies alarm causes via remote surveillance.
* Web interface: This allows the client to check or, in some instances, change the key holder or contact information.
Alarm monitoring globally goes from US$2 per week to $20 or more per week. Check what you are getting in the plan you adopt. Does it include value-added services and/or unlimited alarm events? Does it offer online support?
Another consideration is the CCR's manpower response capabilities. In large countries, it is very rare to find a manpower security company that has patrol coverage of the entire country. Often, the CCR has patrol cars in its own area, then contracts out alarm responses to other security companies in areas where it does not have its own coverage.
The technology side of commercial alarm monitoring was for many years neatly standardized. Using the Ademco-originated Contact ID format, almost all alarm panels could report to almost all CCRs. With the advent of IP, CCRs now have to decide which IP reporting standards and video systems they support, narrowing the range of options for clients should they wish to change service providers.
Onsite equipment starts with a back-to-base reporting alarm panel, of which there are many available worldwide. Most at least report Contact ID, so there are no limitations on CCRs. In relation to monitored services, however, very few DVRs or video servers are made for video alarm monitoring. Few manufacturers, like Xtralis, Dedicated Micros, Teleye and Videofied, offer products specifically for this task.
Mainstream receivers can be purchased from Bosch or Honeywell (Ademco); software packages are available from Dice, Mass, Patriot or ADWS. Video software, however, tends to be proprietary to the DVR.
Reporting and Protocols
The core server for alarm monitoring works in a basic way: The panel receives a detector alert; the panel makes a PSTN call to the alarm receiver (end point); modems handshake; then data string is transmitted. In the CCR, the receiver transmits this information (usually via RS232) to an alarm database. The Contact ID string is then translated into meaningful information, such as site name, zone and alarm type. Operators then respond as per the action plan.
The limitations of the Contact ID format (a numerical string that relies on accurate data entry at the receiving end) are being overcome by the emergence of IP. Instead of sending a numerical string, the panel can report the full information set (site, zone and description), greatly reducing wrong data entries or out-of-date issues.
If you are considering IP reporting, keep in mind that there are different protocols used by different alarm panels and CCRs, few of which are interoperable and many just report Contact ID over IP (thus still limited in functionality). Check for compliance with the new "SIA Digital Communication Standard — Internet Protocol Event Reporting" document. Also make sure your solution does not lock you out of value-added features of remote panel management and full event reporting.
Currently, PSTN is still the most widely used path in the world of commercial alarm monitoring due to its time on market and relative abundance (at least in developed countries). IP, though, is increasingly creeping into the commercial monitoring world due to growing reliability, bandwidth and ability to be continually polled for uptime.
* PSTN: This is a legacy technology forecast to be overtaken by wireless (such as GPRS and 3G) or IP communication. Bandwidth and is call only are the major limitations.
* IP: Internet protocols can be in many forms, from public to private, and from terrestrial (such ADSL and fiber optics) to wireless. Cost and performance are often challenged.
* GRS: This refers to low-bandwidth wireless reporting, which is popular as both a failsafe mechanism and a primary path for polling.
* GSM: This is used predominately for backing up primary PSTN reporting.
* 2.5G/3G (EDGE/UTMS HSDPA/ HSUDPA): These are set to take over GPRS and GSM due to increased bandwidth and ability to facilitate video verification.
Regulations and Limitations
Many countries have laws or standards that are designed to protect consumers from poor service delivery by CCRs.
The United Kingdom has BS8418, which covers remote monitoring. Australia has the Australian Standard 2201.2 for monitoring centers, covering the grading standard. There are many more standards and licenses to evaluate — contact governing bodies in your country.
Beware of using grading as the only criterion. In Australia, the highest grading is A1, meaning the CCR must have met minimum redundancy and staff requirements. However, if the CCR relies purely on text-based monitoring, the client may still be compromised by the inability of the security service to get a guard to the site in a timely manner (the average response time in Australia being 30 minutes).
How to Tell
The greatest risks of owning an alarm panel and having back-to-base alarm monitoring are:
* Detector coverage: Often, intruders would only activate one detector due to poor detector coverage. The client may get a call from the CCR and decline to have a guard sent, having suffered many false alarms from one detector in the past. Consider a video alarm system to mitigate this risk.
* Response time: Regardless of how quickly your CCR deals with alarm events or what level of grading it has, if it takes 30 minutes to get a guard to the site, your assets are vulnerable.
* Out-of-date information: One of the biggest problems with back-to-base monitoring is that the information from the site or in the panel does not match what is in the CCR. Look for providers that offer an online client interface.
And the level of service depends on a number of factors:
* Clients/operator ratio: The business with a lower ratio is likely to provide a more prompt service, all other things being equal.
* Process-driven: This is how accurately the staff follows SOPs.
* Quality of installation: If your alarm system has poor performance or was poorly installed and maintained, the service delivery would suffer.
* Market segment focused: If you are a large, multisite business, it is unwise to choose a CCR that focuses predominately on domestic clients. Businesses have much more complex requirements, so you need a company that has the infrastructure and systems to cope.
The bottom line is to consider all aspects and contact the authorities for local laws and requirements. Pick a service that best
fulfills your particular needs.
About the author: Michael Brown is MD of VideoControlRoom, an Australian-based video monitoring business. For more information, visit www.videocontrolroom.com